The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair. That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area. Radio Dreams opens tomorrow for a one-week-only run at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste. This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)
With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty. But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity. His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.
The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.
Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin. As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity. There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.
Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller. As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.
Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”. This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor. He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.
Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors. Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.
As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams. I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.
Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe. He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco. About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised. The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.
Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.